Dr Neil Bentley is Chief Executive of WorldSkills UK, a government-backed charity which champions world-class apprenticeships and technical skills. Here he tells us how the increasingly high skill level required by employers has led to the need to developing new methods of preparing apprentices and learners for the challenges of work. 

One possible solution: Skills competitions.

The apprenticeship programme in the UK is set to undergo its most significant reform in recent years with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. 

From 2017, all employers with an annual payroll of £3 million will be required to make an investment in apprenticeships by contributing to the new levy. It is part of the government’s pledge to create three million apprenticeships by 2020. This significant shift in skills policy and funding has divided opinion in the UK. 

However, not surprisingly many European countries are also taking a keen interest in the changes. At the recent meeting of WorldSkills Europe – the organisation responsible for raising awareness of high quality vocational education and training – it was clear that countries are watching the developments of the apprenticeship levy very closely and comparing the sustainability of their own programmes against it. 

As expected, there has been a huge amount of discussion about the financial implications of the levy from employers in the UK, but they have also been quick not to dismiss other elements of the apprenticeship reform – most notably the focus on quality. This was also true of the European representatives I spoke to at WorldSkills Europe, who were keen to discuss the development of new standards.

The need for higher quality apprenticeships unites employers and governments across Europe. In the UK, this has led many employers to look in greater detail at methods that can be used to raise standards in their own training and development programmes. 

One method used increasingly by employers in the UK to raise standards in training programmes is skills competitions. 

Designed by industry experts, our skills competitions, known as WorldSkills UK Competitions, assess an apprentice’s knowledge, practical skills and employability attributes against a set of strict international benchmarks.   

The competitions are designed to meet the needs of both multi-national and small and medium-sized enterprises (SME). The involvement of employers in designing the competition activity, which is reviewed each year, ensures it is responsive to the latest developments in a particular sector and this also helps keep employers engaged. In addition to this, the competitions are judged by representatives from industry. This gives judges the opportunity to benchmark their training programmes against those from other employers providing valuable insight into the businesses competitiveness of their own organisation.    

In a recent survey, over 95 per cent of our competitors believed that taking part in competitions had improved their technical and employability skills, while over 80 per cent felt competing had improved their confidence, team working, ability to work under pressure and time management. This shows skills competitions teach young people the employability skills that employers are crying out for. 

Dave Holmes from BAE Systems supports these findings, ‘We take our responsibility for developing our young people very seriously and recognise the benefits competing in these events can bring to their personal development. If our people can get the experience of working in competition conditions, it can only benefit them in the workplace.’

However, the challenge for us was to look at how the learnings from managing skills competitions – both nationally and internationally – could be transferred successfully into the wider work environment, ensuring everyone benefits. 

To do this, we have recently developed a number of services including the WorldSkills UK Professional Development Programme. Designed for teaching professionals and employers, the Programme combines the latest global thinking in apprenticeships and technical skills delivery with our knowledge of producing world-beating apprentices. The programme informs how competition based activity can be embedded in any apprenticeship programme to raise standards. 

For it to be a success, the apprenticeship levy in the UK must not only deliver millions of new apprenticeship starts, it must also drive up quality, resulting in the higher level skills that businesses and the economy needs. The UK’s best ever result at the recent WorldSkills Competition in Brazil, where we came in seventh place ahead of France and Germany, is testament to the role skills competitions play in helping employers equip their apprentices with the right skills to enable businesses to compete better globally.  

Previously Deputy Director-General at the Confederation of British Industry, Neil also sits on the Council of Warwick University and advises the Science Council on diversity and inclusion.
Neil also has a PhD in race equality in the workspace. 

To find out more about the work of WorldSkills UK please visit their website.